What is the most difficult thing in the world ? I can think of lots of difficult tasks. It’s probably pretty difficult to move a comfortable rhinoceros. Ranking somewhere near the top of “the world’s most difficult things to do” must be forgiveness.
From the dawn of time, forgiveness has been hard for humanity. Technology hasn’t made forgiveness any easier. The ability to live longer by conquering disease hasn’t made forgiveness easier to offer or simpler to receive. Forgiveness is just as hard today as it was when the disciples posed their question to Jesus two thousand years ago. If we’re hurt, we don’t like to forgive. If we’ve been hurt, forgiveness is tough to accept.
When it comes to forgiveness, we’re in the same spot as the disciples. We want to know; how does it work? When do we know it’s actually taken hold? When will we feel it? Will we see the effects in the other person and in ourselves?
This is what Peter’s asking Jesus. It is what we’re asking Jesus. When Peter says to Jesus, “Tell me about forgiveness”, I want you to hear your own name. I’m going to read the 21st verse again. It says, “Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Should I forgive as many as seven times?” Where Peter’s name is, I’m going to pause and say my name. I want you to say your name. We’re all going to talk over each other. That’s ok. It will be a Pentecost moment. Then I’ll finish reading the verse again. Let’s do it together. We need to realize: Jesus is talking to us.
Forgiveness isn’t an ethical conundrum to be explained in flow charts and Venn diagrams. Forgiveness isn’t a tactic; it is a response to God’s love. Jesus doesn’t tell us about forgiveness. Instead, he shows us forgiveness in action. Forgiveness is best seen and lived, not observed and studied. Through the art form of the parable, Jesus paints a picture of God at work through acts of forgiveness. And this is an important point to remember. As people of faith, we believe forgiveness isn’t an isolated action or event. Forgiveness begins and ends in God. Forgiveness (regardless of the side your on) isn’t something we do or receive. Through the Holy Spirit, we are able to receive the gift of forgiveness and at the right time, we can pass it on.
Parables are not hierarchical lessons about right and wrong. They are the nitty gritty of life. You know the stuff you talk about when you get home from work or when you’re sitting around the house; that’s the meat of a Jesus story.
The kingdom of heaven is here, now, coming, and yet to be. It’s Jesus’ ideal vision for the world. This story will tell us how forgiveness works in Jesus’ world.
A powerful man wanted to settle up with his employees. Everyone in the sound of Jesus’ voice had an image in their mind. Whether it’s a fairytale image of a king in a far off castle (that’s what I picture) or probably King Herod or Caesar (what they pictured), they knew a rich guy who wanted to cash out.
One of the employees (let’s say a sharecropper situation) owed the landowner ten thousand bags of gold. He was short on the cash. He didn’t have it. Jesus doesn’t tell us how much he was short but as you know, when the mortgage is due, they want all of it. The king calls in all of the servant’s collateral. This would have been common in that day and time. His wife and children will be sold into slavery (remember Gladiator) as well as everything else he owned. At the last minute, the man who owed 10,000 bags of gold begs with the powerful man. I can pay you back. I’ll do an installment plan, he says. He asks only for patience. This ruler, whoever he is, is moved. He has compassion on the servant. The man is released and the loan is forgiven. So is the kingdom of heaven like a king running a business? Is it like a man with loans? Or is it like compassion granted when it is honestly undeserved? I’m thinking Jesus wants us to latch on to the latter.
Here’s where it gets a little tricky. You need to pay close attention. The story evolves quickly. Jesus is going to show us why forgiveness is hard. Forgiveness never stops with you. Once you’ve gotten it, you have it forever. You’re now responsible for sharing the gift you received. Here’s the irony: you never take full ownership of the forgiveness. It’s a gift to you, from God, and should shape how you view reality, forever. Forgiveness is in your possession so it can be given away.
The guy whose massive debt was just forgiven runs into a colleague. It’s another servant he knows from the area. This other servant, the new guy, owes the just forgiven servant 100 gold coins. The just forgiven servant (Mr. Big Debt Guy) loses his temper. In an instant, he grabs the man who owes him 100 coins by the collar and demands to be paid what he’s owed. That’s crazy right?
Guess what he does? Mr. Big Shot, who was just freed from 10,000 bags of gold worth of debt and his wife and children into slavery, throws this guy into jail over 100 coins. He has no patience or compassion. Big Shot has no time for a payment plan. He wants his money and he wants it now!
You know what happens next. The other servants saw this happen. They knew this wasn’t right. How could a man who was the recipient of such grace and forgiveness turn around and be so brutal to someone else for such a small amount of money? Talk about double standards!
Here we see an important point. Life may not be fair but Jesus is telling us something about the kingdom of God: it’s based in a fundamental idea of fairness. Jesus likes fairness. God likes fairness and people treating each other kindly. The kingdom of God is a place shaped by fairness; not gross injustice and inhumanity. Jesus is painfully aware that many of the people listening to him have been thrown into jail and live in cycles of debt slavery to land owners and money lenders. God’s vision is different from the reality they know. This is one of the ideas that make Christianity unique. God came to change the present, not the distant future.
So the colleagues and coworkers go back to the king. They tell him the whole story. You won’t believe what Mr. Big Shot did. He believed it.
Big Shot was sent for and called before the King. The King asked the question we are asking: How can you not show mercy and forgiveness to your servant for a small amount of money when I showed you overwhelming forgiveness for such a great debt? Mr. Big Shot couldn’t answer the question. He was handed over to the guards and forced to pay his entire debt. Wouldn’t it have been easier to be nicer to the people around you? For Mr. Big Shot, forgiveness should have been the easiest thing in the world to do. I wonder if that thought crossed his mind as they led him away. I doubt it.
That’s where the story ends. Jesus, in a moment of parabolic clarity, hammers the point home: “My heavenly father will also do the same to you if you don’t forgive your brother or sister in your heart.”
There’s no splitting hairs on this one. Forgiveness is a priority with Jesus. Jesus didn’t have opinions on many of the hot button religious (and culture war) subjects of our day. You won’t find them in the Bible. Jesus never talked about gay marriage, abortion, or illegal immigration. He did, however, come down, pretty definitively on the side of forgiveness. Forgiveness is a gift from God that helps us understand what’s in the Bible and make sense of a confusing world. It is a blessing we are obligated to use. Forgiveness, this parable teaches us, is not a choice, an option, or a good idea. It’s Jesus’ standard operating procedure. In the kingdom of God, forgiveness is a fact of life. Forgiveness is only difficult if we are too blind to see ourselves as recipients of Grace and too possessive of blessings that were never ours in the first place.
Richard Lowell Bryant